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Buffalo Tough Chains link opiate survivors

Michael J. Pawelek Jr. loved BMX bike racing. He was creative and good with his hands. He also was a recovering opiate addict.

Many of his friends struggled with addiction, too. And to show his support, and to keep himself occupied, he began making heavy-duty key chains out of BMX bicycle chains and gave them to his friends in recovery.

But on June 23, after seven years clean, Pawelek relapsed. He drew his last sniff of heroin and died in his sleep.

Now his brother and sister, Bart and Tamra Hughes, and his cousin Autumn Ormerod -- all recovering addicts themselves -- have begun crafting and selling the same kind of Buffalo Tough Chains as a way to honor Pawelek's memory, unify the community and show those struggling with addiction that they're not alone.

"Hopefully we can help erase the stigma," Ormerod said. "It's not just my family, it's not just your family, everybody is affected by this somehow."

Michael Pawelek last October with his daughter, Kaelyn. He died in June at age 31.

Each key chain has 17 links (including the key ring), representing the 17 counties of Western New York. The unbroken circle signifies the strength of the community and their support of recovery.

"Strong connections can mean life or death in a world that does not stop turning for a broken link," said Bart Hughes, Pawelek's younger brother. "The key is to stay connected."

Of the $20 retail price, 50 percent goes to Kids Escaping Drugs, which funds drug treatment and education. It benefits the charity's Face 2 Face program, which does community outreach.

Kids Escaping Drugs gives Buffalo Tough Chains to its male program graduates, and the Buffalo Tough website allows shoppers to buy chains to donate directly to people in treatment there. Female graduates get an Alex and Ani key bracelet.

The key and keychain signify that each graduate has "the key to their own success. They have the power to go out and be successful," said Suzanne D'Amico director of development at Kids Escaping Drugs.

The charity was attracted to Buffalo Tough Chains partly because the company's three owners were successfully recovering from addiction themselves and were still able to start a small business, D'Amico said.

"It sends a very powerful message to our graduates,"she said. "We want to give our graduates hope that they can go back out into society and be very productive and lead wonderful lives when they leave us."

Ormerod had been clean for three years but relapsed shortly before Pawelek died. The two had done drugs together that night from the same bag. Ormerod woke up. Pawelek didn't.

She had been calling rehab facilities every day for two months trying to get herself a bed when her cousin overdosed, she said.

"Getting turned away from rehab is so discouraging," she said.

Ormerod wants to help keep others from getting turned away from treatment. Donating to Kids Escaping Drugs, which runs a rehab facilities for chemically dependent teens and adolescents, is one way to do that, she said.

The act of making the chains keeps her mind focused on something positive, and helps her feel that something good is coming out of her cousin's tragic death.

"Addicts are not bad people," Ormerod said. "My cousin would be so happy knowing that, even though he's not here, he's still helping the city he loved so much."

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